I recently read the Testament of Abraham for my daily quiet time. The Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha dates it to the first-second centuries C.E. E.P. Sanders, in his editorial introduction to the work, argues that it has an Egyptian Jewish background.
In this post, I will focus on Recension A, which is longer than Recension B. I will use Sanders’ translation, looking primarily at chapters 9-14.
The Testament of Abraham is about God sending his angelic Commander-in-Chief, Michael, to Abraham. The Commander-in-Chief’s mission is to prepare Abraham for his coming death and to escort him to the afterlife, since it is Abraham’s time to go. But Abraham is resistant to going, and the Commander-in-Chief does not want to inform Abraham that he will soon die, since Abraham is a sweet, hospitable, and righteous man. Abraham says that he wishes to see all of the world before his death, and the Commander-in-Chief obliges.
Although Abraham in chapter 9 confessed that he was a “sinner and…completely worthless servant,” Abraham does not have a whole lot of tolerance when he beholds other people’s sins. Abraham sees murderous robbers with sharp swords, and Abraham tells the Lord to send wild beasts to kill them. Wild beasts then come from the thicket and devour the robbers. Abraham sees a man and a woman “engaging in sexual immorality,” and Abraham tells the Lord to “command that the earth open and swallow them up.” The earth then opens and swallows the man and the woman up. Abraham sees some men attempting to break into a house to rob it, and Abraham tells the Lord to consume them with fire from heaven. Fire then comes from heaven and consumes the robbers.
Although the Lord is complying with Abraham’s requests, they do not exactly fit God’s will or character. A voice comes from heaven and speaks to the Commander-in-Chief: “O Michael, Commander-in-chief, command the chariot to stop and turn Abraham away, lest he should see the entire inhabited world. For if he were to see all those who pass their lives in sin, he would destroy everything that exists. For behold, Abraham has not sinned and he has no mercy on sinners. But I made the world, and I do not want to destroy any one of them, but I delay the death of the sinner until he should convert and live. Now conduct Abraham to the first gate of heaven, so that there he may see the judgments and recompenses and repent over the souls of the sinners which he destroyed.”
Abraham sees the judgment of the dead. Those who went on the narrow way, a tiny minority, are saved, whereas those who traveled on the broad way are punished. This sounds like Matthew 7:13-14 and Luke 13:23-24, but there are indications that the Testament of Abraham is not Christian. Jesus, or the Son of God, is not mentioned in the Testament of Abraham. Rather, Adam is in heaven cheering humans on, hoping that more people travel on the narrow way. And Adam’s son Abel, who was killed by his brother Cain, is the one who judges humanity.
Abraham then sees a person whose judgment is on hold because he has an equal number of righteous and wicked deeds. (Such a concept appears also in rabbinic literature; see here.) Abraham prays for this person, and the person enters into Paradise. Abraham, after seeing the bleakness of judgment, perhaps concludes that people need all the help they can get, so he repents of having snuffed out the sinners whom he saw previously. He asks God for forgiveness of his sin, and God forgives Abraham and restores the sinners who got snuffed out. God then says that he punished these sinners “for a time,” but that those who die prematurely at God’s hand are not requited. Sanders’ note interprets this statement in light of “the well-known rabbinic view that those who are punished with suffering or premature death in this world are considered to have been sufficiently punished and to have atoned for their sins, so that they are not punished in the world to come…”
Here are some items:
A. Could the Testament of Abraham be somehow related to Christianity, in terms of one influencing the other? Maybe the Testament of Abraham got from Christianity the idea of a righteous murder victim sitting in judgment of humanity. Perhaps, conversely, Christianity got from the Testament of Abraham, or a prior tradition that was similar to the Testament of Abraham, the idea that God could exalt a righteous murder victim to heaven, where that victim would judge humanity, and it concluded that this is what happened to Jesus. Could the Epistle to the Hebrews be relevant to my question? Some interpret Hebrews 12:1 to mean that Old Testament saints are a great cloud of witnesses cheering the saints on, and that sounds similar to Adam in the Testament of Abraham cheering humanity on. There is also Hebrews 12:24, which affirms that Jesus’ blood speaks better things than that of Abel. Could Hebrews be responding to a tradition like the Testament of Abraham, in which Abel was judging humanity?
B. In reading the Testament of Abraham, I thought about some ideas in Scripture. In the New Testament, we often encounter the idea that God will grant any request that a disciple makes in the name of Jesus, or with faith (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24; John 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; I John 3:22). This troubles people. Any request? Then why didn’t God heal so-and-so, after I prayed for him? And is not God holding himself hostage to human whims by saying that he will answer any request made in Jesus’ name, or in faith?
Many Christian interpreters would add qualifications to this. They point to I John 5:14, which affirms that God answers requests that are according to God’s will. They have also said that God answers the requests that conform to his own character and his commandments: that, when our character is shaped and molded according to God’s righteousness, we ask God for the right things, and God grants our requests. There may be something to this view. John 15:7 states: “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (KJV). I John 3:22 affirms: “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (KJV). In these passages, God granting our requests seems to be conditioned on us being yielded to Christ and Christ’s righteous way, in some manner. I do not think that this entirely solves the problem of unanswered prayer, however, for why wouldn’t God answer the prayer of a righteous person to heal someone else, a prayer that is made out of concern for another person?
I also think of Genesis 27. In that chapter, Isaac blesses Jacob when Jacob pretends to be Esau, and Isaac cannot reverse that blessing on Jacob after the real Esau shows up. Blessings were considered to be that powerful, in the ancient world. Does that mean, though, that God is holding himself hostage to what people say, to people’s blessings and cursings?
In the Testament of Abraham, God grants Abraham’s requests because Abraham is righteous: Abraham is the sort of person who tries to be hospitable to everyone, both those who are important in the eyes of the world, and those who seem unimportant. But Abraham does not always make righteous requests that accord with God’s will, and God still feels obligated to grant those requests. At the same time, God is still in control. God can remove Abraham from seeing more sinners so that Abraham does not request for more sinners to be snuffed out. God can teach Abraham about God’s nature of compassion and longsuffering, knowing that Abraham is the type of person who will learn the lesson that God wants to teach him. God holds himself hostage to Abraham’s requests, on some level, but God is still in charge, navigating events in accordance with God’s righteous will.
C. In the Testament of Abraham, God wants as many people as possible to be saved, but only a tiny minority are saved. That is a tension that I do not understand, but there it is. Could the co-existence of these concepts be relevant to interpreting the New Testament within the context of debates about universalism (i.e., God will eventually save everyone)? There are universalist voices, particularly among certain fourth century church fathers. Here in the Testament of Abraham, however, we see the idea that God may want for everyone to be saved, but God does not save everybody, only a tiny minority. For some reason (maybe free will, and the understanding that people have enough light to make right decisions), what God wants is not what God gets.
D. Abraham calls himself a sinner, but Abraham is not merciful towards other sinners; what’s more, God says that Abraham is not merciful towards them because Abraham himself has not sinned. And yet, Abraham’s lack of compassion by itself is something that Abraham labels a sin, and Abraham asks God for forgiveness of it. These concepts appear contradictory. Could some of that be due to different sources in the Testament of Abraham? Or perhaps one author believed that these paradoxes could co-exist: yes, Abraham was righteous in terms of his overall walk, but he was also a sinner. Even if Abraham slipped up at times, the general pattern of his life was to conform to God’s righteous standard.
I am not as righteous as Abraham, not by a long shot, but like Abraham, I can acknowledge that I am a sinner, while still being outraged at the sins that I see on television. When someone tries to harm someone else, human or animal, that upsets me, and I desire justice. I do not think that this is wrong. I hope, though, that I can also be outraged at my own sins.